The Dark Side of Thanksgiving: Blackout Wednesday

Thanksgiving eve should be a warm and fuzzy family night as college students return home and older adult children who live a distance fly back to the nest. More likely, the college kids will dump their bags by the front door and dash out again to catch up with high school chums. While the older 20-something siblings might make it through dinner, they, too, then will head out to a local bar or party. The night before Thanksgiving has become a social scene, a time to see and be seen. But it’s not all fun. Because of excessive drinking, the night has been dubbed Blackout Wednesday — as in blacking out from too many drinks.

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Cheers

The consequences are frightening: The proportion of people killed in drunk driving crashes over the Thanksgiving holiday spiked by 30 percent in 2010 compared to the rest of the year. Binge drinking is often the cause, and it’s particularly prevalent among millennials. A survey found that 36 percent of 19- to 28-year-olds reported having consumed five or more drinks in a row in the preceding two weeks. (Binge drinking is five drinks for men and four drinks for women over a two-hour period.)

With drinking so ingrained in the millennial culture, can parents say anything to increase awareness of the dangers? Studies have found that the more parents talk to adult children about drinking, the less they are likely to drink, says Paola Pedrelli, a Harvard Medical School assistant psychology professor who treats students at a Massachusetts General Hospital clinic. “Not only at Thanksgiving and other holidays, but throughout the year it’s important for parents to have an ongoing conversation on the dangers associated with drinking alcohol," she said. "They can have an impact.”

While drunk driving leads the list, other serious consequences include academic problems, health risks and suicide attempts. Pedrelli noted that many parents are not aware that young adults’ brains are still developing and heavy episodic drinking can cause cognitive impairment such as memory loss, diminished attention span and lack of impulse control.

Sexual assault among college students often occurs as a result of binge drinking. Pedrelli was particularly concerned that parents speak to both their sons and daughters. “Obviously we’re very concerned about women not being victims,” she said, “but guys might be too intoxicated to understand what the female is saying and not do the right thing, and as a result there are tragic consequences.”

Binge drinking does not end at college graduation. While it peaks between ages 21 and 25, excessive drinking decreases only slightly until age 30.  So even with employed 20-somethings, parents should discuss that beyond the obvious dangers of drunk driving and injury, excessive drinking can impact job performance, promotion and professional reputation. Too often, all that partying ends up shared on social media for the world — including bosses — to see.

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Some studies have found what Pedrelli called “protective behaviors” can limit excessive drinking. Those include avoiding drinking games (“a way to get really drunk really fast”), limiting the number of drinks, alternating alcohol with water, arranging a designated driver and forming a buddy system with other women.

Having a conversation about alcohol abuse is not exactly something that parents might feel comfortable with. However, as Pedrelli said, “It might save a life or prevent consequences that will follow their children for the rest of their lives.”

Mary W. Quigley’s blog, Mothering21 ,  tackles parenting of emerging adults and beyond.

Photo: mauro_grigollo/iStock

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